Latin America

Colombia's President Must Sell Peace to End War

The nation's future depends on leaving its past behind.

U.S. dollars are no substitute for votes.

Photographer: Shawn Thew - Pool/ Getty Images

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos knows how to wage a charm offensive. Visiting the U.S. last week, he impressed a gathering of Latin America policy wonks, threw a lavish party for Beltway notables, and walked away with a commitment from President Barack Obama to ask the U.S. Congress for $450 million to help end the Western Hemisphere's longest war.

If only Santos played so well at home. By rights, he should be a national hero. After three-and-a-half years of vexing negotiations, the conflagrated Andean nation is closer than ever to settling its half-century-old quarrel with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc -- a conflict that has killed at least 220,000 people and uprooted another 5.7 million.

Yet instead Santos's approval ratings are below 30 percent, and his career is on the line. Although a slim majority of Colombians supports the peace effort, the polling firm YanHaas recently found that about half the country believes that peace will take at least another four years. Many Colombians worry that in trying to keep the Marxist rebels at the table, Santos mortgaged justice for truce. Moreover, the costs of the peace agreement will weigh heavily on an economy hit hard by the oil rout and severe drought, feeding public frustrations over fleeting prosperity.

So never mind the plaudits from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the prayers from Pope Francis. Santos needs to show Colombians that he can meet the challenges raised by the peace agreement, narrow the country's divisions, and re-charge its faltering economy.

One of the biggest sore points is the peace deal's provision for holding the Farc to account. Penitent rebels who lay down their weapons, own up to their crimes in special courts, and compensate their victims will be condemned to hard labor but not to jail. "If the Farc refuses to atone for its sins, Colombians are going to feel they've got a raw deal," said Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America scholar at Columbia University.

Another worry about the war's end: Newly empowered narco-traffickers will take the Farc's place in Colombia's thriving cocaine business, which supplies most of U.S. demand. Over the course of the conflict, both the Farc and its rightwing paramilitary rivals fed their war chests with drug profits. Now that the Farc has pledged to give up the trade, rural drug gangs are stepping up their operations. Santos's unprecedented order to bombard some of their outposts is encouraging and a sign he takes the criminal threat seriously.

It will take a lot more to convince the country's skeptical citizens that a new Colombia is in the works. Despite the nation's natural riches and soaring urban skylines, rural poverty abounds. The country's gap between rich and poor is one of the world's worst and land distribution  -- less than one percent of the population owns 62 percent of the land -- is a scandal.

All the better for Alvaro Uribe, Santos's hardline predecessor and fiercest critic, whose unending hostility toward the insurgents and rapport with humble rural dwellers play well on the stump. "While Santos is seen as aloof and polished, a member of the Bogota elite," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, "Uribe throws on a poncho and people flock to hear him." Earlier this week, the ex-president again slammed the leniency granted to the Farc and asked the U.S. to reconsider its support for the peace agreement.

It's no help that Santos's push to end the war coincides with a sharp economic downturn and rising inflation. More than 80 percent of respondents said the economy is either in decline or stagnating. But Santos can't do much about the fall in oil prices that has hit Colombia's treasury and currency, and under his administration the country is hardly a basket case. Gross domestic product will grow 2.7 percent this year (down from 4.6 percent in 2014), which looks almost robust in a region slipping into recession.

Santos's economic challenge is to help Colombians overcome new hurdles without losing sight of their recent gains: Extreme poverty fell by half from 2002-2014 and the middle class now outnumbers the poor. He also needs to talk up the "peace dividend" and lure the foreign investment that will make it real for more people. A 2015 World Bank study reckoned that had the war ended 20 years ago, per capita income would be 50 percent greater today.

His political prospects may brighten if the final accord is signed by the announced March 23 deadline. That, in turn, could help prevent the ensuing national referendum on peace, scheduled for later this year, from turning into a damning plebiscite on his presidency.

Santos has intimated he may quit if the deal collapses. Yet failure to stop the conflict would be Latin America's loss. Colombians should look to the future, not the past, vote yes on the referendum, and then keep the pressure on government to safeguard the historic deal against the fog of peace.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.